Home and self are the overarching themes that define Sanathanan Thamotharampillai’s perspective, both as an artist and art historian. Thamotharampillai was born in a Tamil middle-class family in Jaffna. Belonging to a minority in Sinhala-dominated Sri Lanka and living through the decades-long civil war, often away from home, greatly influenced his artistic expression.

By the time Thamotharampillai had completed his schooling, the only arts college in Colombo had changed its medium of instruction to Sinhala. It was a difficult blow for students from the northeastern part of Sri Lanka, where the medium of instruction in schools was Tamil. The only option they had was to travel to Madras in India, closer home in terms of language. By the mid-1990s though, even that opportunity was lost, as the colleges stopped enrolling students from Sri Lanka after the assassination of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur in India. Thamotharampillai, who had reached Madras a week after the assassination with dreams of becoming an artist, had to return home disappointed. But his determination to study art led him to the College of Art in Delhi, where he completed his Bachelors (1993-1997) and Masters in Fine Arts (1998-2000).

Living away from home when students of his age were joining the armed struggle for Eelam, a separate land for Tamil-speaking people in Sri Lanka, weighed heavily on him. Alone in a foreign country, while his homeland was burning, Thamotharampillai found himself helpless, unable to express his anguish to anyone. Painting became his release.

After his studies, he returned home to Jaffna to work in a college of fine arts. In 2004, the war came to an end, and he witnessed the history being rewritten by the victorious Sinhala government. The burial grounds of the martyrs were cleared and mourning for the dead was overshadowed by celebrations of victory. In the midst of all the this, Thamotharampillai realised,“the voice of public”, the ones who really bore the brunt of the war “was not recorded”. These were the stories he wanted to document and preserve, the memories of “surviving the war and resistance”, which he continues to do till date.

Thamotharampillai spoke to Scroll.in about his artistic journey and the socio-political conditions that determined the focus of work. Edited excerpts:

The inner circuit/Mixed media on paper/2006. Credit: Sananthanan
The inner circuit/Mixed media on paper/2006. Credit: Sananthanan

What attracted you to art?
In the 1980s in Sri Lanka, Tamil nationalism was in its ideological form and was not violent. This is considered a period of renaissance in theatre and literature. Earlier, we used to consume whatever was coming from Tamil Nadu. In terms of identity and idea, the literature and theatre in Jaffna were not easily distinguishable from that of Tamil Nadu. After the ’80s, a Sri Lankan Tamil identity, different from that of Tamil Nadu, consolidated.

Since the social conditions were so varied, and day-to-day experiences so different, the content in literature and theatre also turned out to be different. On the other hand, the consciousness about “Tamilness” and a separate homeland became an impetus for the development of a distinct artistic expression. It was during this period that theatre and literature became very explosive. Theatre became a kind of propaganda and [a] popular aspiration for the Tamil community. The form was new, experimental and modern.

I was in school at that time and was influenced by what was happening around me, even though I was not allowed to go to the theatre or cinema halls. Whatever I gathered from the roads and advertisements had an impact on me. My inclination towards art was first identified by my school teacher, who saw in me a potential for art.

I hail from a typical Jaffna middle-class family. A norm in middle-class families is to look for jobs in government sectors, so pursuing art was out of question. We were expected to become doctors or engineers or find a “government job”.

Despite all these expectations, home provided me with a different experience. My mother, a home science teacher, was skilled in decoration. She would teach me about balance in art. My father, an architectural engineer, had lots of design books. This [gave] me the environment to learn [about] art. Outside home, during that time, a lot of exhibitions were being held.

Vamana/Mixed media on paper/2004. Credit: Sananthanan
Vamana/Mixed media on paper/2004. Credit: Sananthanan

Was there an art school in Sri Lanka? Where did you pursue art?
Deciding to pursue art was not easy. At that time, there were only two options to study art – the Colonial Arts School in Colombo, and one in Madras. My parents also partly sensed what was happening, and why I was drifting towards art. This was a threat to the middle-class mindset – their notion of an artist was the one who starves without an income. I was determined to become an artist. I thought even if I do not become an artist, I will at least become an art teacher. Why should I not give it a try? After a year of struggle, crying and fighting at home, my parents finally allowed me to study art.

How difficult was it to pursue art in Sri Lanka?
In the Colonial Art School, they had stopped teaching in English and started conducting classes in Sinhala in 1978. This denied our [Tamil-speaking people] the right to study art in our country. We did not have any other alternative but to move to Madras. There were already students who were moving to Madras to pursue arts since the colonial period. They had become pioneers at the university.

It was also practical for us to move to Madras than to Colombo because of better transport facilities. Also, after the 1983 riots, there was a special refugee quota in the colleges in Madras to accommodate Tamil-speaking students from Sri Lanka. There were at least 10 seats reserved for refugee students. But the assassination of Gandhi overturned everything, especially the relations between India and Sri Lanka. The Tamil Nadu government immediately cancelled the allotted seats for Sri Lankan [Tamil] students. It was a week after Gandhi’s assassination that I arrived in Madras seeking admission in the arts college, and later, I had to return home dejected after being denied admission.

Check point/Mixed media on paper/2009. Credit: Sananthanan
Check point/Mixed media on paper/2009. Credit: Sananthanan

Meanwhile, during my stay in Tamil Nadu, I tried to meet and talk to artists about their experience. I [interviewed] nearly 10-15 artists and sent them [the interviews] to newspapers and magazines back home where they were published. Their experience and work was not comparable to anything [I had seen]. I would not have got an opportunity like that in Sri Lanka. Most of the artists hailed from villages. They were not even from middle-class families. They were children of farmers and labourers, and their struggle was important. It was completely different in Sri Lanka, where most of them [the artists] were from elite families. They had studied art in Paris and London and had returned to Sri Lanka. Secondly, the artists whom I met in Tamil Nadu had the [responsibility] of carrying forward traditional art and also to portray the rustic life in their paintings. I returned home with this experience.

I thought I will go back home and pursue architecture. But when I came home, I realised I was not prepared to do anything other than art. I tried looking for places where I could pursue art and then found a college in Delhi.

Check point/Mixed media on paper/2009. Credit: Sananthanan
Check point/Mixed media on paper/2009. Credit: Sananthanan

How and why did home became the central theme in your works?
It was a crucial decision for me to move to Delhi because people of my age were carrying arms and dying. Many youngsters were moving out of the country to safeguard their lives and here I was, pursuing art. This weighed heavily on me and so I used the opportunity to learn as much as possible, and I never wasted time. I spent a lot of time in theatre, cinema halls, dance performances and saw the best of all the art productions in Delhi. I learnt more from the city. I sat through seminars, whether or not I understood the topic of discussion.

The central point in all my works is still the home. Home was burning because of war. That was on top of my mind while I navigated through [everything] in Delhi. I could not sleep or share my trauma with anyone. When I came to Delhi, people here had sympathy towards Sri Lankans. They respected and looked at us as foreigners. But they did not know what was happening in Sri Lanka or the politics. They were more concerned about Pakistan.

There was no telephone, and letters would take at least three months to reach Jaffna. So I did not bother writing. There was no one I could share my feelings with. I began to express my anguish and trauma through my paintings. My own body became a reference for my painting, my own story started coming out in symbolic way as an image. It was not a conscious decision, I was just finding a way to exist through painting.

Check Point/Mixed media on paper/2009. Credit: Sananthanan
Check Point/Mixed media on paper/2009. Credit: Sananthanan

When did you start working on memories and war?
[I was] in Delhi in 1995 when the mass exodus happened in Jaffna, when nearly 5 lakh people moved out. [That was when] I started painting about about the war and victimhood.

The aspiration for a separate land or a separate identity linked with my own identity and with that of my community. My works were either related to trauma or archiving. All these things were not planned. I was reacting to the situation and my work reflects that. Opportunities and challenges before me pushed my art practice. That is how in the last 20 years, home or self has been a major point.

By 2004, immediately after the war ended, we saw how those in the power, who won the war, started rewriting history. The burial grounds of the cadres of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were cleared, government officials were celebrating war victories in public spaces when the Tamils were mourning the loss of their loved ones. This clearly showed that the country was divided. Questions as to what kind of a country we were living in appeared. In this whole narration of the Sinhala nationalist or Tamil nationalists, the voice of public was not recorded. They were the ones who carried the burnt of the war.

They are repositories of stories of surviving the war and resistance...stories that I wanted to document.

So, we started collecting objects – memories of the war – from 500 houses. We started trying to preserve the memories and experiences of war in the project The Incomplete Thombu. This project records the stories that removed civilians from their homes and the memories that they took with them. Through this project, we examine the subject of displacement through a series of drawings that overlay ground plans of houses drawn from memory by displaced Tamil-speaking civilians. That is how I entered the realm of art history as well. It was not a conscious decision.

Stories from the ‘Cabinet of Resistance’

As part of his archiving project, with “home” as the central theme, Thamotharampillai created the Cabinet of Resistance. This cabinet has 30 drawers and each drawer has a card that contain narratives, drawings and photographs of people who survived the war. These narratives provide a glimpse into the lives of common people, how they creatively used their limited means during the economic embargo or when they were displaced, and during times of censorship. Here is a sample from the collection of stories between the period of 1950 and 2000 in Jaffna in Sri Lanka.

1. I was a small child when we were displaced in 1990. We walked nearly 15 km to reach Jaffna. My family members carried household things that were portable. Since I was small they told me to carry my pet puppy. I carried him because he was too small to walk that distance. A few days after we reached Jaffna the puppy died…

2. We got notice to leave our village without delay because of the advance of government troops. My grandfather could not bear it. He died that same day. We left the village immediately after his body was cremated.

3. It is hard to nurture a jasmine creeper in the heavy winter of Toronto. I covered the plant with a blanket and kept it inside the house. Last summer it yielded four flowers. Their fragrance brought me back to my Jaffna house.

4. We had to leave our house because of the advancement of troops in 1990. My father carefully locked the doors and brought all the keys with him, with the hope of return. Now, almost 20 years have gone by, and my father passed away a few years back, without seeing his house. We still have the keys of the house even though it, and my father, no longer exist.

5. I have my ancestral house in Jaffna. My elder sister’s marriage took place in that house….Now it is a military training camp. Once when my family visited, we received guest treatment in our own house. We sat in our drawing room tasting cool drinks and biscuits. Later, when I attempted to see the house, my request was rejected on the grounds that I did not have the right. Now I watch my sister’s wedding video to see my own house.

6. Now I am living in Toronto with my family but my childhood memories are more closely associated with our house in Jaffna…..There is no trace of my house now. I used to look at my empty land from Canada using Google maps…

7. My father died when we were small. My mother struggled to feed seven children. I stared working in the paddy fields when I was eight years old. My elder brother who was helping my mother to raise the family was shot dead by the Indian army. My elder sister is married and living in Switzerland and my younger brother is in France. Now I work as a University lecturer in Jaffna. One of my sisters was an LTTE cadre and was killed in 1995 during a military operation. My other two sisters are married. One of them was badly injured in the last phase of the Vanni war. Both my sisters’ husbands lost their legs in the same war.

8. The house that I live in now came under an air attack in 1990. It was the first night air raid by the government. Everything in the house was destroyed. I lost all my toys that I had kept since I was a child and all the glass bangles that I had kept in wooden boxes. I have since rebuilt my house but there are no toys and bangles to call it home.

9. Since the late 80s due to heavy shelling from the Palay air base. We had to move out of our house many times and stay in neighbouring villages. During the time of our final expulsion in 1990, we were in the process of building a new house. One of the most disturbing incidents during the expulsion was that we could not take our pregnant Jersey cow with us. We had no option other than to abandon her in our cattle shed. We never knew what happened to her.

10. I have resettled in our own house after nearly twenty years. I was displaced to Puttalam. Everything has changed here. My street does not look like it did before. Most of those who were displaced have yet to return… Even in the refugee camps in Puttalam we lived with our relatives and friends. Now I am living with strangers. I am a stranger on my own street.

Shreen and sand bags

Sand bags were crucial during the war to protect us from aerial bombing and sniper attacks. Fertilizer bags and hessian sacks were commonly used for making sand bags. But in the last phase of war there was a heavy shortage of these sacks because people did not carry them when they were displaced.

People who were trapped in the final days of war were displaced many times. With every displacement the number of things that could be carried become less and less. People carried items that were needed for their day-to-day survival and items that had sentimental value.

They sold their gold jewellery during different stages of displacement to purchase food items such as rice, coconut and milk powder for children. Most of the married women carried their bridal saris, their most precious property, especially for their sentimental value. To safeguard themselves and their families from the shelling and air raids, they gave their expensive silk bridal saris with gold and silver thread to make sand bags.

Cabinet of Resistance/KMB/2016. Credit: Sananthanan
Cabinet of Resistance/KMB/2016. Credit: Sananthanan

Sivaraj and the radio

The distance between Jaffna and Colombo is 394 km and it is nearly 7-8 hours away by train or bus.

When the LTTE took over the control of the entire northern part of Sri Lanka, the main road that connects it to the capital Colombo was closed. No direct transport was available.

People had to travel to Colombo for many reasons. They took the risk of travelling dangerous routes, crossing landmines, jungles, lagoons and “no-man zones”. Many of them died when they were caught in the crossfire in the areas between no-man zones and the LTTE and Government controlled areas.

Travel to Colombo sometimes took four days or more.

People would inform their families in Jaffna via letter that they had reached Colombo safely. There were no telephone or telegram facilities available at the time. Letters could take more than a month to reach Jaffna, depending on the schedule of the ship service.

With great difficulty it was possible to tune into broadcasts from the state-owned radio station. Due to a shortage of batteries and a lack of power supply, people only used the radio for listening to the news at 6.30 am, 12.45 pm, 6 pm, and 9 pm. After every news transmission, the radio would broadcast the daily obituary announcements.

Those who reached Colombo safely sent their own obituary notices to the radio station. When their relatives in Jaffna heard their names they celebrated their safe passage to Colombo.

Thiyaku, Thirunelveli Mechanic

For more than 10 years the government stopped the supply of petrol. As a result all petrol engine vehicles were abandoned.

But there was a limited supply of kerosene. So we converted petrol engines into kerosene engines.

By following the function of tractor engine, we fixed three to five gaskets and converted the petrol engine into a kerosene engine. The gasket reduces the compression. I converted many British made cars such as Morris Minor, Morris Oxford, A 30, A40, A90, Austin Cambridge and Somerset in this manner.

For a while we had to mix vegetable cooking oil or gingelly oil or bassia oil with engine oil, and in some cases coconut oil with engine oil, to run the engines.

During this time there was also a shortage of spare parts for these converted British cars. I used parts of condemned vehicles as spare parts for cars in running condition. Occasionally we also made our own spare parts by casting them in aluminum or iron.